This fall, pop and style icon Rihanna launched Fenty Beauty. The new cosmetics line features a foundation in 40 unique shades across an exceptional range of skin colors. It has been widely praised by consumers with albinism to deep skin tones as the necessary spark for a long-overdue conversation about inclusivity in beauty.

It took more than 2 years to develop the makeup line, but this kind of success doesn’t happen only through cycles of exhaustive product design and development. A truly human-centric and sensational product launch like this one begins with rigorous user researchor more specifically, empathy.

Patrice Grell Yursik, author of natural beauty activism blog Afrobella, says “the gatekeepers [of the broader cosmetics business] need to wake up.” Rihanna and her team recently demonstrated what this looks like in their industry. Instead of relying on historical data to draw inferences about what might sell, the Fenty team connected directly with potential consumers and learned how it feels to be marginalized by an entire industry.

It’s time for learning and development to wake up, too.

Learning leaders already know that grabbing attention in a constantly connected world is tough. Technology-enabled programs are ubiquitous, and we’re forever searching for the modality that will hold learners’ attention and deliver even greater impact for the organizations we serve. From mobile apps to business simulations to e-learning and more, we’re endlessly seeking boosts in retention and ROI. But in the quest for the latest and greatest, have we begun to assume we know what’s best and lost sight of real learner needs along the way?

An example of this phenomenon occurs in user testing. I’ve worked with teams who claim to have no time or budget to complete user testing, instead relying on themselves to “test” their products. When pilot rolls around, expectations are extraordinarily high: things must go perfectly because there was no margin for error built into the schedule. Pilot attendees then sometimes complain about issues that could have been prevented through more empathy, prototyping, and better testing: difficulty completing tasks that led to errors, confusion over instructions, non-intuitive navigation, lack of inclusive global representation, repetition and boredom.

As learning and development training leaders, if we believe that dropping a bit of useful content into an interface that works for us is enough to create great user experiences, then we’re not unlike those mainstream beauty companies who used themselves as a proxy for users and ignored everybody else.

So how do we get better at creating empathetic, delightful and frictionless user experiences? UX Researcher Dr. David Travis says, “Great design doesn’t live inside designers. It lives inside your users’ heads.” The point of entry to our users’ heads, of course, is meaningful research: talking directly to the people experiencing the problems we need to solve. We need to better understand things like their digital fluency, the daily challenges they grapple with, the language they use to talk about their experiences, and their goals and hopes for professional development.

Instead of waiting until the bitter end of program development, we need to invite learners to join in our initial design and development conversations. We need to be courageous enough to tell our senior stakeholders that we’re going to prototype and pilot even if things aren’t “perfect,” because that’s how we learn what works best for the people we serve. We need to methodically test our offerings and be truly open to user feedback as a tool for our growth. We have to let users know that if a UX doesn’t work for them, they haven’t failed—we have.

And finally, we need to be ready to change. If empathy requires knowing that we know nothing, then being truly empathetic to our users means letting go of our preconceived notions of “what might work based on our experiences” and instead, allowing users to guide us, like Rihanna did.

Deliberately seeking user input and changing course when we inevitably misstep requires bravery, humility and detachment…but inspiring that kind of impact in learners’ lives is where the true beauty begins.

Emily Ricci

Author Emily Ricci

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